TANF Work Requirement to Repay Benefits

When any type of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) assistance that is granted by the government, child support rights must be forfeited to the state by the custodial parent.  This is supposedly so that the noncustodial parent can repay the TANF benefit awarded to the family.  A question arises about the possible over-payment received by the state if TANF recipients are required to work in order to earn the benefit.  According to Gene Falk, a specialist in Social Policy (2013), states must meet work participation standard or risk a reduction in their block grants.  Since states receive a portion of a $16.5 billion block grant, it is of great importance that mandates are met and or exceeded.  Working for cash benefits may sound a bit easier than what is actually required.

Currently a parent is required to work a minimum of 30 hours per week or 20 hours per week for parents with children under six years or under, (Administration for Children and Families, 2012).  Parents must engage in specific core activities in order for credit towards the 30 hours.  A parent must work at least an average of 20 of the 30 hours per week.  According to the Office of Planning, Research, & Evaluation (2012), these hours are only counted if the following core activities are included:


  • Unsubsidized employment
  • Subsidized private-sector employment
  • Subsidized public-sector employment
  • Work experience if sufficient private-sector employment is not available
  • On-the-job training
  • Job-Search and job readiness assistance
  • Community service program
  • Vocational education training
  • Child care services for individuals participating in a community service program


As if those mandates were not enough, more rules are applied for needy parents enrolled in the TANF program.  Beyond 20 hours per week in core activities, participation in noncore activities may be counted.  The Office of Planning, Research, & Evaluation (2012) lists these activities as:


  • Job-skills training directly related to employment
  • Education directly related to employment, in the case of a recipient who has not received a high school diploma or a certificate of high school equivalency
  • Satisfactory attendance at high school or in a course of study leading to a certificate of general equivalence, if a recipient has not completed high school or received such a certificate


Although the fine print all but excludes the fact that grants are not loans, and therefore do not require repayment, cash benefits seem to be repaid at least on two occasions.  The first repayment occurs when parents are mandated to work in order to collect cash benefits from the TANF program.  Activities countable toward a family being counted as “engaged in work” are focused employment or working off the cash benefit, (Falk, 2013).  Working off a debt that should not be considered a debt casts ethical doubt on a system supposedly designed to help the needy. When considering the amounts of money TANF recipients receive in a monthly benefit, one could perceive that receiving nothing at all might be a better scenario.

For example, in states like Alabama and Arkansas, monthly TANF benefits average $210 for a single parent family of three.  This means that these parents are earning approximately $1.75 for participating in work requirement programs.  This below minimum wage amount will never lift a family out of poverty, but more importantly, the family is “working off” the TANF “loan” which is really a grant.  The second form of repayment for the grant is paid in the form of child support.

The states, upon receiving rights to child support payment from TANF participants, pursue noncustodial parents with vigor in order to recoup the burden of providing for the family.  Any child support payments collected are used to reimburse the state and federal government for TANF benefits provided to the family (Welfare Peer Technical Assistance Network).  That is a lot of work and money for the repayment for such a low amount of grant benefits.  Because of child support laws, that debt owed to the state often balloons to unmanageable levels thus leaving a parent always in fear of retribution and lifetime debt.

The amount of money that the states demand in return for so little is not beneficial to families that the system is supposed to assist and protect.  As long as people are exploited and overcharged for grant money that is not supposed to be repaid, astronomical problems will exist.  Poverty will continue to plague American families as long as the poor are being charged double and triple for small amounts of money while corporations fail to repay any of the billions that they receive from the government.  This cycle needs to end or we will continue to delve deeper into a world of the ‘haves and the have not’s’.


Benefits.Gov Compass (2012, October). Benefits.gov eNewsletter. Retrieved March 1, 2013, from http://www.benefits.gov/news/newsletter/october-2012

Falk, G. (2013, April 2). Congressional research service. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32748.pdf

Hahn, D. K., & Zwdlewski, S. (2012, March 5). TANF work requirements and state strategies to fulfill them. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/work_requirements_0.pdf

Kakuska, C. J., & Hercik, J. M. (n.d.). Collaboration between tanf and child support enforcement: Partnering to support families. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from https://peerta.acf.hhs.gov/pdf/tanf_collab.pdf

Laasby, G. (2014, March 5). Target data breach: Wisconsin child support payments stolen – TwinCities.com. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from http://www.twincities.com/business/ci_25281444/target-data-breach-wisconsin-child-support-payments-stolen

Roberts, P. (2005, November). Center for law and social policy. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publication-1/0252.pdf

Wolf, J. (n.d.). What is TANF – Temporary Assistance For Needy Families. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from http://singleparents.about.com/od/financialhelp/p/TANF.htm